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31 October 2014

Ebola is the latest political battleground between America’s left and right

The febrile atmosphere of the mid-term elections has turned the response to the disease into a way of playing politics.

By David Millward

Barack Obama could not have made his feelings clearer as he welcomed doctors and nurses who had treated ebola victims in Africa.

“They represent citizenship, patriotism and public service at its best,” he said. “When they come home, they deserve to be treated properly like the heroes that they are.”

But it appears that not everybody shares his views, as panic seems to be sweeping America, especially since Craig Spencer, a doctor from New York, was found to have contracted ebola.

Some doctors and nurses have complained of outright hostility on their return from West Africa.

For example Debbie Wilson said despite being declared clear of the disease said she had been ostracised by some friends.

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“One place of employment told a friend they would throw her under a bus if she came to see me.”

Over the past week or so an almost surreal political rift has opened over how health workers should be treated when they come home.

It has crystallised in Fort Kent, a small town in the far north of Maine, a remote part of the state where there are probably as many moose as people.

The controversy has centred on Kaci Hickox, a 33-year old nurse, who treated ebola sufferers in Sierra Leone.

On arriving back from Sierra Leone she was quarantined after screeners at Newark airport determined she had a fever.

Hickox was put in an isolation tent where, she says, she would have remained for 21 days had she not called in the lawyers.

Having been pronounced clear of ebola, she won the right to go home.

But her welcome from Paul LePage, the Tea Party backed governor of Maine, was hardly more friendly.

He and his health officials have demanded she observe a 21-day quarantine and the nurse has bluntly refused.

The stand-off between the nurse and the outspoken LePage has led to a bizarre pantomime with the massed ranks of the media and the odd state trooper pitching camp outside her boyfriend’s house.

At the same time Hickox – at least in the eyes of the right – has morphed from Florence Nightingale into Typhoid Mary.

The damning evidence seems to have emerged from obsessive trawling of the internet by right wing activists.

Clearly Hickox was suspect when it turned out that she was a registered Democrat and an Obama supporter.

As far as the Gateway Pundit website was concerned, the nurse was nothing less than a “far left progressive”.

Judson Phillips, the founder of Tea Party Nation, pulled no punches in his column in the Washington Times.

“Oh the horror! She can’t go get sushi on demand now,” he wrote.

“The problem with liberals is they are more important than anyone else and she would not allow anyone or anything to interfere with her important social life.” Then, almost inevitably, he turned his fire onto the president himself.

“Barack Obama, whose every action seems to indicate that he wants an ebola pandemic in America, jumped to her aid.”

Another Tea Party activist sniffed a conspiracy, suggesting she was flown into Newark to trigger a row with Governor Christie by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the heavily criticised federal agency.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the issue would be politicised in the febrile atmosphere of the mid-term elections.

It is true that Democrat and Republican governors have sought to impose 21-day quarantine periods of health workers who have been in contact with Ebola sufferers.

But reason seems to have been thrown out of the window as voting draws closer.

Hickox and her supporters insist they are following medical guidelines and complying with expert advice.

The Obama administration seems to agree, with the president appealing for Americans to respond with reason rather than hysteria.

But in the febrile atmosphere of the mid-term elections, the Republican right seem to have sniffed out an issue they can exploit.

Given how jittery America is over ebola it is probably a brave politician who decides to go along with expert advice rather than the overwhelming balance of public opinion, especially with voting just over a week away.

This is particularly true in Maine where Paul LePage is running neck and neck with Mike Michaud, his Democrat opponent.

The smart money was on Michaud winning, especially with the independent candidate suggesting that his supporters should vote tactically.

But the ebola panic has enabled LePage to portray himself as the man who will protect 1.3 million Mainers from the disease.

It may just squeeze him over the line.

David Millward is a US correspondent for the Daily Telegrpah